When the Brain isn’t Listening

girl in glass

Remember that old teen rebellion quip- “talk to the hand because the ears aren’t  listening”? Truth.

The brain isn’t listening. It can’t. Not when it is in a threat response.

Let’s have a little science talk about what happens in your body when you are reacting to something that is stressful. Everyone has a range of tolerance of things that go wrong in a normal day. Traffic, misunderstandings, mistakes and conflict cause us to react and bring us to the brink of our tolerance. If something is bad enough that a person has difficulty handling the event, the brain survival mechanisms take over and the body reacts as if it is in danger.


In assessing our behaviors, Psychologist divide the brain into two parts, one that runs on instinct and the other that has higher reasoning skills and problem solving. Each expert has their own name for the two parts of the brain: Dan Siegel calls them the upstairs brain and the downstairs brain. Dr. Bob Rhoton calls them the Hulk brain and the Bruce Banner brain, which I think explains it pretty well. Others call them the lizard brain vs. the wizard brain. When stress levels reach beyond a person’s tolerance, the brain shifts into the “downstairs” brain. The higher reasoning skills are actually shut off and the person does not have access to it. The survival brain is in control and the only thought on the person’s mind is to survive. This is done through fight, flight or freeze- whichever one is going to mean safety. The body responds in kind, muscles tense up, the person takes shallow breathes, the pulse quickens, and blood flow decreases from the extremities so that the vital organs get the blood flow. Normal body functioning is put on hold to deal with the crisis.

The person is fearful, anxious and has extreme emotions. Do you ever feel like your child isn’t listening to you when she is upset? The middle ear muscles literally constrict when the instinct functions of the brain are in control, so you are right, she can’t hear you!


This person is not reasoning, not thinking, and probably isn’t making very good arguments. The survival brain has shut out the thinking brain as the person prioritizes a perceived threat. Now you know that your child is in no real danger when you are arguing with her about her chores, but her brain isn’t logical right now, and she has picked up on something, especially if she has a traumatic past where something has triggered her response where this argument feels like danger.


If you can tell that your child is in an instinct survival brain here are some things you can do. Stop talking, she isn’t listening anyway. Make your voice low and soothing so the constricted middle ear can pick up the tones. Keep your palms open, and your body relaxed. This will deescalate your child’s threat response. She is looking for danger signs but is only seeing you with quiet and peaceable movements. Her body will attune to your body that everything is safe right now. If your child reacts negatively to a soothing touch, do not touch her, back up and give space. Make the environment safe. When she is able to relax physically, her thinking brain will come back online.


Have a talk with your child later about how the brain works and how you both can recognize when the instinct brain is starting to take over so you can take steps to regulate and keep the thinking brain in control.

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